Cheapo Technology 101: How to stay wired while traveling

A collection of prepaid SIM cards. Photo by toyohara.
A collection of prepaid SIM cards. Photo by toyohara.

No matter where you’re traveling, it’s important to keep yourself well-connected, technology-wise. Luckily, pocket-size, travel-friendly gadgets are no longer limited to the businessman-on-the-go market. (And even the most modest backpackers duck into Internet cafes to type emails on PC setups that rival the most tech-savvy home office.)

If you’re making plans for a 2010 getaway or adventure, here are six inexpensive and popular electronics people are adding to your “what to bring” checklist.

1. SIM cards for cell phones

Postcards, telecartes, and payphones just don’t cut it anymore when saying hello from abroad. Cell phones are an expected travel item worldwide, and the cheapest option is usually not a home-based plan. It’s a SIM card.

SIM (“subscriber identity module”) cards are simply thumbnail-size chips that users insert into their cell phone to make calls. Users are provided with an individual phone number on a pay-as-you-go credit program. These cards can be purchased, as well as topped off with credit, in supermarkets, kiosks, and most shopping centers.

For more on buying SIM cards abroad, see this Rick Steves’ article on mobile phones in Europe.

2. MP3 players: Bring a USB cord to keep the travel soundtrack rolling.

The most common uncertainty when it comes to toting along MP3 players is the relatively short battery life. Know this: All it takes is a simple USB cord to charge your personal music collection via any computer. Earbuds minimize space (no need for clunky headphones), and travelers can easily collect a more worldly selection of music by sharing and trading songs with others.

3. Netbooks: The smaller and lighter notebook.

I find small ”netbook” computers perfect for traveling. Look for ones that are light in weight, usually from two to four pounds. Long battery life is key, and there are models with batteries lasting four-to-five hours. Screen size can dip below eight inches, which is compact, but tricky for Web browsing.

Try finding screens 10-to-12 inches with a sturdy feel and, if possible, a webcam. Prices vary, but basics start around $300 and creep up to over $1,000.

For a list of top-rated netbook computers, check out this Consumer Reports guide.

4. The power of the compact camera.

Digital point-and-shoot cameras have come a long way in the past few years and, let’s face it, they’re much easier to travel with than a professional SLR. Many are now waterproof, and features like video and audio are increasingly the norm. They’re also easy to slip into a pocket and able to hold buckets of high-quality images. Reconsider the convenience of small digitals before instinctively reaching for the pro piece with the monster lens.

For tips on buying a point-and-shoot, visit Consumer Reports.

5. Trust the Internet cafés.

Not in the mood to take a laptop or netbook with you? Don’t feel the need to be constantly wired? Internet cafés have gone through some extreme makeovers the last decade and offer a great service. Most are completely “pimped out” with sleek desktop computers, web cams, mic and headphones, and offer the latest software with the click of a mouse.

Hourly prices at most Internet cafes dip in the more competitive and big city areas, but rest assured that an Internet café is within reach when you least expect it.

6. Smartphones

Looking to consolidate your wires and devices while traveling? Consider a smartphone. Whether you opt for an iPhone, Blackberry, G1 or other types, these handy devices have rapidly become indispensable to many travelers (so long as you’re willing to swallow the cost of owning one.) Being able to snap photos, record video, listen to music, check email and post media to Facebook and other sites is undeniably appealing to many, although also abhorred by some.

If you’re considering using a smartphone while traveling, also consider this: photo and video quality won’t be quite as good as what you get with standalone devices, although recently it has greatly improved. Also, always be aware of your smartphone’s data and usage fees for overseas travel. Unlike the American Express card, you might want to “just leave home without it.”

Tell Us: How do you stay wired?

How do you stay wired on the road? Do you take your computer with you or simply check-in at the Internet café? Do you still pack your big camera, slip a small one in your pocket, or skip the camera all together? Tell us about it!

About the author

About the author: Audrey Sykes hopped across the pond from the US eight years ago for a Masters degree in global journalism. Since then, she’s lived all over Europe, reporting and editing for music sites, snowboard mags, and travel media. She’s also the Amsterdam author for Party Earth, a guide to nightlife across Europe.
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Cheapo Comments

3 Responses to “Cheapo Technology 101: How to stay wired while traveling”
  • I am sure most of you about this, but nothing beats Skype on a notebook in Europe. Good call quality, cheap, and easy.

  • Ana says:

    I would like to add that it can be a good idea to get an USB-to-AC adapter to charge your MP3 player/camera even if you don´t have a computer around (or don´t want to waste your laptop battery on it).
    It goes plugged straight to the wall outlet and has a usb socket on the other side.
    They´re really cheap and small to carry around.

    Something like this:
    http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.26575

  • J says:

    I have an iPhone that I bought used off of howardforums.com. It is an old phone (first or second generation) but still can accept SIM cards for when I’m in Europe. I keep a cheap prepaid SIM in the phone but mostly use it for Skype/Google Talk/other voice over IP calls when in the vicinity of wifi. I’ve never really had a problem with the picture quality, but then again I view them as snapshots and not works of art. I’ve also loaded on a video camera app and can take videos.

    Even without the SIM ability, I’d bring something akin to an iPhone, be it a PDA or an iPod Touch or a Zune. Something palm sized with internet and voice capabilities fits my needs perfectly. The addition of a camera and actual cell bands is just an added plus.

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